From tasty teardrops to inhalable clouds of gin, from conceptual edibles to curated eating experiences, from Nestlé to Nandos, the art of food design comes in many guises with varied goals and outcomes
Words by Alyn Griffiths
Eating is essential for all human beings, and as a result the production and distribution of food has created one of the world’s most valuable and powerful industries. Despite the ubiquity of food and its associated activities (including farming, packaging, preservation, transportation, retail, catering and waste), it is only recently that designers have begun to examine the potential of edible ingredients as a workable material, as well as the role design might play in improving the way food is supplied and consumed.
The nascent discipline that is sometimes referred to as ‘food design’ takes many forms, but a unifying attribute is the critical or playful re-evaluation of the relationship between humans and food. Around 20 years ago, designers including Martí Guixé and Marc Bretillot began to work on projects that examined food’s transition from a form of nourishment into a non-essential consumer product. ‘Most of my food projects are not commercial, but are a way of defining a new perception of this kind of product,’ suggested Guixé, who designs conceptual edible objects ‘that negate any reference to cooking, tradition and gastronomy’. Similarly, Bretillot creates food, spaces and performances that focus on the history and culture associated with various ingredients or culinary experiences. Unlike chefs, who aim to produce outstanding replicable dishes, these designers seek to develop one-off works focused primarily on raising awareness of food-related issues.
In 1999, designer Marije Vogelzang founded her own studio in the Netherlands to explore the powerful emotional influence of food and the rituals associated with it. ‘At that time most of us were just playing around in our own bubble, without an awareness of what each other was doing,’ she recalls. Vogelzang later helped to establish food design as a viable academic subject when she became head of the new Food Non Food department at Design Academy Eindhoven in 2014. ‘Everybody had a slightly different focus and that was a good thing. Personally, I was interested in food as a tool to help people communicate or to provoke questions around food production.’
Part of Bompas & Parr’s 2008 Architectural Jelly Banquet, this creation from Atkins is titled Wheatgrass and Lime Jelly. Photography: Bompas & Parr
The conceptual focus of these pioneering creatives coincided with a re-evaluation of design’s role in the world, with the Dutch collective Droog at the forefront of a more light-hearted, anti-disciplinary approach that focused on broad cultural issues. Over the following years there was also a notable revolution in food culture, with an increasing focus on health and wellbeing manifesting itself in greater awareness of what we put in our bodies. The rise of vegan, organic, artisanal and locally grown foods fuelled this movement, while other food trends such as ‘gourmet junk food’, micro-brewed beer, nose-to-tail eating and the branding of certain ingredients as ‘superfoods’ all shone a spotlight on various aspects of food culture. Meanwhile, the work of experimental chefs such as Heston Blumenthal and Ferran Adrià helped to elevate food preparation to the level of an art form or a science, with a hearty pinch of commerciality thrown in for good measure.
Another factor that contributed to the emergence of food design has been the explosion of the experience economy, which has seen consumer priorities shift from the acquisition of material goods to the pursuit of memorable experiences. In this context, designers often seek to translate a brand’s values into a unique event or experience, using food to provoke carefully choreographed emotional responses. ‘Because we deal primarily with the senses that are typically ignored in general design practice — taste and smell — we’re able to create a very rich narrative,’ suggests Harry Parr of pioneering multisensory design practice Bompas & Parr, which is renowned for its imaginative and fun, food-focused projects. An added bonus of these events is that the outcomes are often well-suited to sharing on social media, providing opportunities for brands to score a viral hit.
Studio Appétit’s project for Art Basel 2015 created an ‘eating experience’ using Laufen’s SaphirKeramik material. Photography: Studio Appétit
In the current world of food design, a dichotomy has emerged between studios focused on commercial projects and those with a more artistic or academic inclination. The work of practices such as Bompas & Parr, Arabeschi di Latte, and Studio Appétit demonstrate how food design can help to enhance a vast range of experiences, while pastry chef Dinara Kasko is creating a buzz around her architecturally inspired cakes made using 3D-printed moulds. Edible ingredients have also become a subject for artworks produced by creatives including photographer Dan Cretu and food stylist Anna Keville Joyce. Meanwhile, alongside their personal projects, Guixé, Bretillot and Vogelzang all now help to run courses focused on the role of food and design at universities in Italy, France and the Netherlands, respectively. Designers are also focusing on weightier issues such as the United Nations’ target to reduce food waste by 50% before the year 2030.
There is validity in all of the varied approaches to working with food currently being pursued by artists, chefs, technologists, designers and creative agencies, with many practitioners successfully straddling different specialisms within this emerging discipline. The consensus among the individuals profiled in the following case studies is that there is, as yet, no precise definition of what food design is. Rather, there is plenty of enthusiasm and impetus to explore all that it could be, and how it may help to promote more detailed consideration of what we eat, how we eat, and how to improve the processes surrounding this enormously influential economy.
Bompas & Parr
Created by Bompas & Parr in 2013, the Guinness Tasting Rooms in Dublin form a specially designed Guinness drinking environment - Phontography: Donal Murphy
Bompas & Parr is the enfant terrible of the food-design world — an experimental experience-design studio known for its hedonistic events, immersive installations and provocative food-based films and photoshoots. The studio, founded in 2007 by Sam Bompas and Harry Parr, initially rose to prominence thanks to its fantastical experiments with jelly. Its quirky take on a familiar foodstuff laid the foundations for hundreds of subsequent projects that have explored how flavours and smells can be used to create unique and memorable experiences.
Bompas & Parr’s first-ever event saw over a thousand individually illuminated jellies designed by some of the world’s leading architects exhibited in UCL’s neoclassical Quad. The Architectural Jelly Banquet was part of the London Festival of Architecture 2008, and is almost certainly the only event ever organised as part of that festival to involve jelly wrestling. Since then, the studio has created an alcoholic architecture installation, featuring an inhabitable cloud of breathable gin and tonic; a theatrical dining experience based on the unpleasant eating habits of Roald Dahl’s Mr and Mrs Twit; and the world’s first multisensory firework display for London’s New Year’s Eve, which included fruit-flavoured mist, snow and bubbles that were choreographed to match the fireworks.
In the hands of Bompas & Parr’s team of 20 staff — including designers, cooks, technicians, producers and filmmakers — edible ingredients become narrative tools used to provoke distinct feelings and memories. According to Bompas, focusing on something as familiar and accessible as food as a starting point for creative experimentation presents inherent challenges. ‘Designing with food is very personal because ultimately you’re feeding people,’ he says, ‘and when you work with food and drink, everyone is an expert because we all eat and drink a whole lot, so you have to get it right. Fortunately we’re able to control the whole process and ensure there’s a positive reward at the end.’
Breathe responsibly: the Alcoholic Architecture concept, first installed in Borough in 2015, involves a walk-in cloud of breathable cocktail. Photography: Marcus Peel
Over the past ten years, Bompas & Parr has evolved into a multidisciplinary studio that collaborates with external contractors including artists, psychologists, historians and engineers to produce emotionally compelling experiences for clients such as Mercedes-Benz, Vodafone, LVMH and Guinness. ‘Historically, brands would brief an agency to design an event for a launch and frame it in terms of brand colours or how it should look,’ explains Parr, ‘but if they’re asked to describe how their brand tastes or smells it’s much harder. Now they realise that this next level of sensory engagement is really important as a way to connect with the consumer.’
As with many designers working with food, Bompas & Parr’s projects tend to be one-offs, or events with a limited lifespan. However, it is currently seeking a site for its British Museum of Food, which it describes as ‘the world’s first cultural institution exclusively dedicated to food and drink.’ The museum will give the studio an opportunity to apply its expertise in producing engaging experiences to a permanent space providing an entertaining insight into our relationship with food.
In the 2013 interactive installation, Teardrop, visitors could taste flavoured drops from 24 glass pipettes
Marije Vogelzang has been probing the intersection between food and design since 1999, and is known for her experimental projects that examine all aspects of the relationship between human beings and what we eat. As one of the pioneers of this still nascent discipline, she is a respected authority on how design thinking can be used to confront pressing global issues arising from the production, distribution and consumption of food.
Vogelzang has claimed that she doesn’t like to describe her work as food design, ‘because food is already perfectly designed by nature’. Instead, she prefers to focus on the verb ‘eating’, and the historical, cultural, social and psychological associations around this universally relevant and recognisable activity. ‘Everybody understands food and can relate to it because it’s a basic necessity of life,’ says the designer, ‘so for me using it as a tool is a nice way to talk about important things like obesity, the loss of biodiversity and the waste generated by human beings.’
Vogelzang’s very first project was a dinner experience designed for funerals in cultures where the colour white symbolises death. A meal of entirely white foods was served on custom-made white crockery by servers in bespoke white uniforms. She also launched restaurants called PROEF in Rotterdam and Amsterdam, together with entrepreneur Piet Hekker, where she was able to stage experimental eating experiences such as a meal designed around a diner’s astrological element.
Gypsy women give food and tell stories to strangers in Eat Love Budapest (2013)
Gradually, Vogelzang began to engage in more autonomous work, such as her Eat Love Budapest project, which saw gypsy women feed guests while telling them stories about their lives. The guests sat beneath an elevated table covered with a tablecloth that obscured the women outside. ‘It was a very simple way to use food to aid integration and understanding between people,’ she recalls. ‘This project shows the social relevance of food and how it is more than just a fuel.’ The designer adopted a similar approach for Edible Reflections (2016), which aimed to promote interaction between Swedish residents and immigrants by inviting participants to feed each other through a mouth-shaped hole in a double-sided mirrored screen.
In 2005, Vogelzang curated a Christmas dinner for Droog, featuring a tablecloth suspended in the air with slits cut into the fabric so participants sat with their heads inside the space and their bodies outside. The project, which was recreated in Tokyo in 2008, promoted a sense of togetherness as the participants’ movements could be felt by those sitting around them. Other playful, interactive works included a 200kg knitted sausage that unravelled to reveal its meaty innards (Cuddly Sausage, 2008), and the Teardrop installation at the DordtYart art park (2013), where visitors pulled on pieces of rope to release flavoured drops from 24 glass pipettes into the mouth of someone standing in the centre of the space.
The 2008 recreation in Tokyo of the 2005 Droog Christmas dinner. Photography: Kenji Masunaga
From her studio in the Dutch city of Dordrecht, Vogelzang now works on a wide range of personal and commercial projects for brands such as Virgin, Nestlé, Nando’s, Selfridges and Procter & Gamble. Through her work she seeks to promote positive change within the food industry by encouraging these companies to re-evaluate their attitudes and working practices. She is also head of the Food Non Food department at Design Academy Eindhoven, and creates installations and exhibitions for museums around the world.
In 2016, Vogelzang established a global platform for designers working on the subject of food called the Dutch Institute of Food & Design. Through this initiative she aims to share her ideas and experiences with anyone interested in understanding more about how design can provoke radical and widespread change within this important industry. ‘There are a lot of issues in the world of food right now,’ she opines. ‘I’m not saying that designers are going to save the world, but I do think it’s good to get some new ideas into the food chain.’
The Things of Edible Beauty project integrates jewellery and perfume into the eating experience. Image: Studio Appétit
‘I don’t see myself as a food designer,’ claims Ido Garini, who has instead coined a new verb, ‘appetiting’ (meaning ‘to create something appetising’), to describe his work. The Israel-born designer and chef is the founder of Studio Appétit — a multidisciplinary studio focused on overseeing the development of experiences that often incorporate food along with other products. ‘In our projects, food is not the goal,’ he explains, ‘it’s just one of the elements we use to create the experience.’ Garini studied industrial design and worked in kitchens and bars before founding his studio in 2011. During his studies, he recognised that he would not be satisfied designing products for an already saturated marketplace, and decided instead to focus on creating experiences.
His passion for food led him to examine how it might be used to alter people’s perceptions of products, places or brands. ‘There are only two activities human beings engage in that involve all of our senses simultaneously, which are having sex and eating,’ he suggests. ‘If you harness the act of eating within a larger experience you can actually produce a very powerful outcome.’ Studio Appétit adopts a holistic approach to its projects, which involves curating every aspect of the eating experience. Initial concepts are explored through its ‘couture projects’ — in-house experimental platforms that inform its commercial work and often develop into themed collections of products. The Things of Edible Beauty concept, for example, examined ideas around beauty and the ornamental value of food, and included an edible perfume, as well as jewellery that doubled as an eating instrument.
Afternoon tea designed for the Rosewood Hotel in London. Image: Studio Appétit
At last year’s London Design Festival, Garini created a temple for Food Religion (the studio’s latest couture project) at the German Gymnasium restaurant in collaboration with Conran and Partners. The concept explores the power of food in popular culture and examines how it is almost deified in certain contexts, such as laws protecting regional ingredients and dishes, or people altering their habits and behaviours to fit food-based trends. ‘For a lot of people in my society, food is a driving force behind the choices they make in everyday life,’ the designer points out. ‘That’s what makes it so important, and so much more than just a physical sense enhancer.’
Across all of the projects he works on, including conceptual food installations, product designs for food, dining concepts, restaurant art direction, recipes and serving concepts, Garini is known for his attention to detail and care in ensuring consistency throughout an experience. This means that any food involved must be executed properly, so that it tastes as good as it looks. ‘Food has to be delicious or else it becomes a gimmick,’ he insists, adding that some designers overlook this critical point and therefore endanger the reputation of food design. ‘When you work with food you have to hold it up to the same standard as any other design discipline. It’s all in the detail.’